A Feminist Theoretical Take on Virginity Auctions

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Various press outlets (not linked here) have reported that a medical school student planned to auction her virginity and then cancelled that plan.  Over at Feminist Current, Elisa Haf writes thoughtfully about the situtation in “Student Virginity Auctions and Sexual Economics.” Here is an excerpt:

There is a lot to analyze here….I’m more interested in the context of such choices (so how free they really are) as well as in why they are women’s to make in the first place. Why do women go there? Why do we consider sex work?

Student virginity auctions are particularly telling on this point. Because both men and women have to pay for higher education, yet the only student virginity auctions I’ve heard of have been flogging a woman’s first time. This could be about heightened scrutiny of women’s sexual choices, but I actually think (though I can’t think of a way of proving this) that a story about the auction of a man’s virginity would attract more page views and scandal. It would at least be novel. So in this case, at least on the most basic level, if we ill-advisedly forget about women being more likely than men to have dependents and probably getting paid less for doing the same work if they have a job alongside their studies and so on and so fourth — if we basically pretend for a minute that men and women are on an economically equal playing field when it comes to higher education and paying for it, and if we factor in that most people in higher education — including, apparently, the woman of the latest virginity auction story — probably have more economic options than your standard issue young person, then why do female students sell their virginities (and enter sex work in other ways)? Why are they seemingly more likely to do so than their male counterparts? On the admittedly flawed terms we’ve set up, it isn’t economic necessity driving them to it.

Does this mean that “transactional” is just the way women’s sexuality is — meant for commodification somehow?

The theory of sexual economics, widely unpopular among feminists, has been interpreted to claim so. But an insight of the theory which is often overlooked is its emphasis on the role of equality in shaping socio-sexual norms. Basically, the idea is that sex is something women have and men want (a “female resource”) which women exchange with men for access to some of the resources men have that women don’t to the same degree — wealth, status, earning power. Women police each other’s sexualities in order to keep sex in low supply for men, enabling women as a class to demand a higher price for it. However, when women have greater access of their own to resources like wealth, status and earning power, women are less bothered about the price they can get for sex. Conversely, a woman in particularly dire straits — with little to no access to such resources — is more likely to take whatever she can get for sex. So really well off and really badly off women are more likely to have sex in exchange for less, but better off women’s choice to do so is freer.

Read the full post here.

-Bridget Crawford

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